Charles  Johnson

Article Summary:

Understanding why people buy.

Why People Buy

"How do my customers make their buying decisions?"

This is a question any good salesperson spends a great deal of his/her working life trying to figure out. After all, to influence our customers to buy our products, we need to understand what drives their decision-making process.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs -- the groundbreaking work of Abraham Maslow -- goes a long way towards explaining the basic factors in human motivation. These needs are biological or physiological needs, safety needs, belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.

While Maslow's work is fascinating, and probably the starting point for almost all consumer-buying models, I have found a simpler way to explain what motivates my customers -- pain.

Let's look at a few simple steps in my pain model.

  • An unfulfilled needs causes pain
    Pain is one of the single best motivators in the human condition. For the record, we're not talking about physical pain, but an emotional response.

  • Most buying decisions are made emotionally and justified logically.

  • Many buying decisions are made to relieve some form of pain.

The above points are easy enough to understand because we've all been in situations as consumers when emotions have driven our buying decisions.

For people who live in the Northeast, where the winters can be particularly brutal, think about how you would feel if your oil burner broke down in the middle of January, depriving you of Maslow's most basic need, the physiological need for bodily comfort.

How much would you pay to get that boiler fixed as quickly as possible? Would you shop around for the best price? How much research would you do before making your decision?

In all likelihood, you would settle for the first technician you could find that could come to the house. In this scenario, quelling the pain of an unfulfilled need has become the overriding motivator, and all those consumer-buying models that academics spend so much time coming up with are completely thrown out the window.

And this behavior is not indigenous to just individual consumers, companies also use emotion to steer their purchasing decisions. Therefore the job of the salesperson is to uncover their client's pain. If we can define our client's pain, and make them realize that our product or service will ease that pain then we will win the sale.

Here are some tips to try and use this on your next sales call to try and use this model.

1) Uncovering your customers pain through probing
Let's face it, our clients aren't going to tell us what is causing them pain, we need to draw it out of them through effective probing. I typically use two kinds of probes in trying to uncover my client's pain:

  • Open-ended probes
    These are questions that solicit a descriptive response. Often these questions, which can also be called empathetic probes, start with, "Tell me about..."

  • Closed probes
    These are essentially "yes," or "no" questions. These can also be characterized as logic probes.

2.) Once a pain is revealed, you need to ask the client how it feels.
What we're doing here is evoking an emotional response because we're bringing the customer back to their basic motivation for buying - solving a problem. Using this approach helps us cut through the customers built in defenses and allows us to operate on a strictly emotional level, something that will ultimately motivate them into action.

3.) Match the benefits to the customer's need.
After drawing out the client's pain, you must align your products benefits to that clients needs. The best way to align the benefits of your products is by using closed ended questions - try asking your client if they can see how your product might be able to solve their problems. This practice is also called a trial close in many sales circles, and it's usually designed to draw out objections that the client may have.
In closing, let's review the key points here.

  1. Buying is about more than facts. Normally the buying process is facilitated by some unmet need, or problem.
  2. An unfulfilled need can become a pain.
  3. More often than not feelings drive buying decisions. Emotion motivates, logic substantiates.
  4. We cannot be with the client when they are experiencing pain, because it normally occurs before and after a sales call.
  5. Therefore, we need to get the customer to talk about their pain so they can relive it and feel the experience. This is done through effective probing and listening.
  6. If we can get our clients to believe our solutions to quell their pain, then they will be motivated to buy from us.

Charles Johnson is a Principal and founding member of Medical Education Training Associates, LLC. Charlie is a senior sales executive with an outstanding career track record in mining and developing the talents of a sales organization. He has helped clients recognize the importance of effective sales training and its impact on successful customer engagement. For more information visit

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